The Big Parade

1925

Action / Drama / Romance / War

8
Rotten Tomatoes Critics - Certified Fresh 100%
Rotten Tomatoes Audience - Upright 91%
IMDb Rating 8.2 10 5450

Synopsis


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Movie Reviews

Reviewed by Bill Slocum 9 / 10

Silence Is Golden

A lot of old movies work despite the fact they are silent. "The Big Parade" is unique to me in that it is hard to imagine it working so wonderfully if it wasn't a silent.

There's no gainsaying the greatness of silent comedies, like those of Keaton or Lloyd. Silent horror films like "Nosferatu" pack an eerie power. But dramas usually work for me when I can hear the actors talking. Not so "The Big Parade."

Here you see American soldier James Apperson (John Gilbert) and French farm girl Melisande (Renée Adorée) struggle to build a connection despite not speaking each other's language. With no sound, their pantomime becomes more engaging, more amusing, and cuts to the heart of what their relationship is about.

"I don't know a word you say," Apperson says, "but I know what you mean."

Watching Apperson's unit walk into action, we hear nothing but the tick-tock of a metronome, broken only by an odd pling of string whenever a flying bullet connects with one of his comrades. We see officers and non-coms give direction, but have no idea what they are saying. Everything about the battle is surreal.

Apperson's comrade, Cpl. Slim (Karl Dane), gives us the only hint of strategy: "We're gonna keep going' till we can't go no more."

"The Big Parade" is a film that draws on various tangents of wartime experience, from pathos to terror to humor. A long opening section has Apperson, Slim, and their buddy Bull (Tom O'Brien) bonding over mail calls and wine cellar raids. You are encouraged to relax and enjoy their company, but you pull back. It's like bonding with a puppy in a kennel you know you can't take home.

King Vidor makes a nearly perfect movie. There are slower stretches, and a late bout of overacting from Gilbert, but "The Big Parade" has a solidity to it that rewards watching over and over, a tough-nosed story buttressed by a clear sense of mission. At the same time Vidor avoids making too much of a Big Statement. His focus is on war's dislocation, not its folly.

Vidor based his film on a treatment by a World War I veteran, Laurence Stallings, for whom the emotional toll was at least as important as the physical. According to Jeffrey Vance's illuminating DVD commentary, Stallings was focused more on military life behind the lines. It's here the film pulls you in, before any violence sets in, with the cooties and the way the soldiers settle in to their new environment.

Gilbert is terrific to watch, whether he's walking around a village wearing a barrel or trying to teach Melisande how to chew gum. Usually love scenes kill a good war movie, but Gilbert and Adorée are such fine company you enjoy their lulls together. I don't know if Gilbert had a real issue with his voice when sound came in, or if its myth, but his scenes remind me of Norma Desmond's claim about the superiority of silents: "They had faces then."

If I had to recommend a silent movie to a person wary of them, and I didn't want to stack the deck with one of the great clowns or a horror film, I would choose this. It may not be the greatest silent movie, but "The Big Parade" draws upon the unique strengths of the form to create a multi-layered, involving entertainment that holds its value a hundred years later.

Reviewed by evanston_dad 9 / 10

A Big Success

It occurred to me while watching "The Big Parade" that a double feature of it and "All Quiet on the Western Front" would just about be the last cinematic word on World War I.

If you're looking for a movie director with range, look no further than King Vidor, who could direct an astonishing war epic like this and then deliver a melodramatic weepie like the equally sensational "Stella Dallas."

"The Big Parade" is silent film at its visual best. It features perhaps the best goodbye scene ever captured on camera, when cadet John Gilbert leaves for the war and shares a tearful farewell with his girl, while a phalanx of army vehicles charges by in the background. It's only one of many scenes that uses parade imagery for increasingly ironic purposes, culminating in a twist at the end that had to have hit audiences at the time, when the war was still a pretty fresh wound in the psyches of many, like a ton of bricks.

Not just an excellent silent film, but an excellent film, period, and one that would hold its own with any number of more sophisticated examples of the art form made since.

Grade: A

Reviewed by frankwiener 8 / 10

Powerful

"You'll look gorgeous in an officer's uniform. I'll love you even more then." Justyn Reed (Claire Adams) to Jim Apperson (John Gilbert)

For me, this is one of the most significant lines in this very, very "big" movie. Contrast these silly and superficial words against Justyn's disgusted reaction to the sight of a seriously disabled Jim when he returns from the war. This contrast from the beginning to the end of the movie summarizes its very serious and somber message about the unrealistic glorification of war as it compares with the very real experience of those who are called upon to do the actual fighting. As Jim endures the horrors of battle, Justyn doesn't even wait for his return before she takes a passionate interest in his own, nerdy brother, of all people.

More than any other silent director, King Vidor's exceptional work in both this picture and "The Crowd" succeeded to awaken my appreciation to the very special beauty and value of the silent film. I can't say that all silent films are of this caliber, but, after so many years and so many technological advances in the movie business, they both maintain their viewing appeal and their relevance to our lives.

The battle scenes rank among the most impressive portrayals of combat that I have witnessed on film and are the successful results of painstaking efforts not only by director Vidor but of the uncredited MGM production manager, Irving Thalberg. While they are not as graphic as such modern films as "Saving Private Ryan", they nevertheless strongly convey the nearly impossible challenges of serving on the front lines of physical conflict. Beyond these striking battle scenes, so far ahead of their time, I was very moved by the scene of Jim with his parents, played by Claire McDowell and Hobart Bosworth. I don't believe that this scene would have been as potent without the outstanding directing ability of Vidor. Also, the image of Mrs. Apperson standing at the front door as her son departs for war in a faraway land depicts the pain and torment of all mothers in this dreaded predicament as well as any that I have ever seen, and it will linger in my mind for a very long time.

Although the first 75 minutes could have been shortened, I believe that the director wanted to develop the human characters of the three central soldiers as fully as he possibly could, and the result is that the viewer even more strongly empathizes with them and their excruciating circumstances on the battlefield. The growth and transition of Jim Apperson's character during the course of the film is a remarkable achievement by both Vidor, the director, and Gilbert, the actor. The performance of Renee Adoree as Melisande is delightful, and I regret that her film career was so tragically cut short as the result of her fatal illness at age 35. While some reviewers disliked Karl Dane's performance as Slim, I found him to be a very likable personification of Disney's Goofy who is suddenly placed in the midst of a major war, facing it with admirable, almost inhuman, bravery and fearlessness. Slim, even as a humanized Goofy, is the one you want with you in a foxhole. He is man's fearless, loyal, and best friend.

The 1988 musical score of Carl Davis contributes significantly to the emotional impact, successfully communicating what spoken dialogue obviously cannot achieve in a silent movie. This is one silent movie that will hopefully enhance an appreciation for this very important era of film-making in other viewers as it did for me.

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